Fern Folklore (and More)

Jun 20, 2018
The Draping of the Fern

A beautiful fern in the fern garden at Como Park in Minneapolis.

Jasanna Czellar

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Ferns are fascinating! They are an ancient family of plants with a prominent place in folklore—especially on St. John’s Eve (June 23) and St. John’s Day (June 24).

Ferns first show up in fossil records from a time over 100 million years BEFORE dinosaurs walked the Earth. In fact, ferns grew before flowering plants existed.

Long ago, people couldn’t explain how ferns reproduced since they lack flowers or seeds. (Today we know that ferns reproduce from spores.)

It was this mystery of the non-flowering fern that led to folklore about mystical flowers as seeds.

Here is some of the folklore that I have have found—and thought that you would enjoy …

Midsummer Eve Lore

  • During the Middle Ages, ferns were thought to flower and produce seed only once a year—at midnight on St. John’s Eve (June 23) prior Midsummer;s Day
  • Since the seeds couldn’t be seen, they were believed to be invisible. Many attempts were made to collect them on St. John’s Eve because they allowed people to become invisible, see into the future, and have eternal youth.
  • This folklore is intertwined with Midsummer Day (June 24); bathing in the dew on this morning was said to bring youthful glow, healing, and youthfulness.
  • It was also believed that ferns DID flower—but only until the birth of Christ. When all the flowers bloomed in His honor and the fern did not, it was condemned to remain flowerless forever.

Fern
Photo: “Glowing Fern” by Almanac reader Karin Shipman

Ferns for Healing

People throughout the world frequently use ferns as medicines for various ailments, especially ancient tribes.

The spores on the underside of the fern provide relief to the stinging nettle (which is often nearby).

  • When boiled in oil or fat, Ophioglossum vulgatum has been used for wounds and to reduce inflammation. 

  • A poultice or lotion made from the roots of Botrychium. virginianum has been applied to snakebites, bruises, cuts and sores in the Himalayas.

  • The powdered rhizomes of Adiantum lunulatum  has been used as an antidote to snakebite in India.

  • Extract of fresh leaves of Nephrolepis cordifolia has been used to stop bleeding of cuts and help in blood coagulation.

  • The paste of the leaf of O. reticulatum has been applied to the forehead to get rid of headache.

  • Filtered water extract of rhizome of Abacopteris multilineata has been used for stomach pains.

Fern Symbolism

The ancient fern has a history rich in symbolism.  As mentioned above, ferns were seen as good luck, often for new lovers. The fern symbolizes eternal youth.curled-fern-frond.jpg

To the indigenous Maori of New Zealand, the fern represented new life and new beginnings. 

To the Japanese, the fern symbolizes family and the hope for future generations.

According to Victorians, the fern symbolized humility and sincerity. Click to see the meaning of plants and flowers.

Starting in June, my woods and lowlands in New Hampshire fills ferns.  (Ferns require liquid water to reproduce, which is why you’ll often find them near streams and moist, forested areas.)

They sprout from wet soil in late April and the young fiddleheads appear bright green against the decaying leaves.

Fiddleheads

Have you ever eaten fiddleheads? So-called because it looks like the tuning end of a fiddle, the fiddlehead the very top of the young ostrich fern, still tightly furled and sheathed in a covering that can be a challenge to remove. (Be aware that it’s only the ostrich variety that is edible. In addition, they must be picked before unfurling; the leaves that follow this growth phase are poisonous.) Many people in this area boil the young plant for an asparagus-like treat. 


Photo: “Ostrich Fern/ Fiddleheads” by Almanac reader Diane Peck

Growing Ferns

If your yard has indirect sunlight and moist soil, consider growing ferns. They are one of the more deer-resistant plants, too. This page includes a list of native ferns in North America.

Some ferns are also grown as houseplants such as Boston Ferns and Staghorn Ferns. See tips about growing these ferns:

Boston ferns grow well with temperatures that are 68 to 75 degrees F during the day and 50 to 69 degrees F at night. They require humidity between 50 and 80 percent, and they do not like drafts. Boston ferns stop growing from fall to winter and during this dormant stage like the temperature to be 50 degrees, minimal watering (the soil should be barely moist), and no fertilizer. During the winter, mist the leaves twice a day. The fern’s root system can occupy up to three quarters of the solid space in the pot without harm, and this plant does not like to be repotted.

Staghorn ferns are often presented as gifts. They can not be planted in ordinary potting soil, so that’s the first thing to check. They should be placed on a piece of bark or (unreated) wood board. Place a few handfuls of damp sphagnum moss or orchid mix on the board and place the fern on top so that the flat round basal fronds are touching the board. Firmly secure the fern to the board with twine, a thin wire, or fishing line. (The fern will attach itself to the wood eventually.) To water staghorn fern, soak the entire arrangement in a bucket or sink. Keep the fern in the shade and water daily until it takes hold of the wood. Feed every two weeks year-round with a balanced liquid fertilizer diluted by half.

I hope you discovered something new about the humble fern. 

Do you have ferns in your area or do you grow ferns? Please share your thoughts on ferns—and folklore!

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Your Old Farmer's Almanac editors occasionally share our reflections, advice, and musings—and welcome your comments.

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Ferns

I live in eastern Tennessee in the United States. I have ferns growing wild in multiple places on my 10 acres of land. Some are in surprising places as they do not appear to be close to any water but others definitely place themselves close to low areas as well as wet weather springs. The temperature here often exceed to 90° in the summer time and yet there are many farms but they don’t tend to grow large.

A perfect have for birds

Each Spring ferns return to cover an area under our front bedroom window. We have two bird baths & a feeder in the area so we can watch the birds while we're at our computers in that room. The ferns are beautiful! They were here when we bought the house in 2000. Thank you for the information on the folklore of ferns.

Ferns

I I've in Scotland and ferns grow all over the place two appeared in my garden 8 years ago and now they are huge. As you can imagine the weather here is not to hot rarely as hot as seventy and often into minis numbers .I have very clay soil and sometime snow bit the ferns continues to thrive.

I have a 'descendent' of my

I have a 'descendent' of my grandmothers Boston ferns. She divided hers up a year before my wedding (in 1981) so there were ferns across the front of our church. I took a couple of these ferns with me and have been dividing, repotting, and giving them away ever since. In 2013 my daughter was married and there were ferns decorating her service as well. I didn't have as much time for them to be large and full but she now has one in her home all these years later.

You say Boston ferns don't like to be repotted but when mine get too big for their pot I cut the rootball into smaller chunks with a serrated knife like Grandma showed me, repot in new containers and so far they have always thrived. Every summer I put them out under a tree just like my Grandmother always did. Maybe they thrive because my Grandmothers' spirit is keeping an eye on them. :)

Heirloom Boston Ferns....

Hi Bonnie! I was fascinated with your post here that you made just over 2 years ago & am fascinated with your comments! Here in SW Michigan, people buy Boston Ferns in hanging baskets & by summer's end, or early fall, they're all lying on top of trash or recycling bins. I've tried growing numerous woodland Ferns & actually bought some Ostrich Ferns (to taste the fiddle-heads), but didn't have much success with either. The thought of an heirloom Boston Fern really intrigues me! My wife Janet carried English Ivy in her bridle bouquet & we planted it on the east side of our house, where it thrives to today, 30 some years later, but your Boston Fern story gives me a whole to type of heirloom plant to try! Thanks for sharing & if you have any tips of
R suggestions, please let me know!

I too like ferns and other

I too like ferns and other Pteridophytes!! If anyone can tell me step by step how to grow fern in my home garden, it would be a great help to me.

Catherine, you have been a

Catherine, you have been a most proficient and educational addition to the staff of OFA. Thank you for your hard work in research and communication and for your most informative and readable articles. God bless and keep up the good work.

Great article on ferns.

Great article on ferns. Interesting to learn their place in ancient folk-lore. Thanks for the information!

Thank you, Michael. Glad you

Thank you, Michael. Glad you enjoyed! We discovered this folklore while camping with family in Indiana. It rained and we spent time studying ferns in the nature center. Learning often comes from the unexpected incident!

I was gifted with a fern

I was gifted with a fern several years ago ,I planted it and it seemed to be doing well. the next spring nothing appeared so i assumed it had died . Two years later it sprang up as a welcome surprise . it has flourished ever since

The fern photos are

The fern photos are beautiful! I'm afraid my fern experience has been limited to buying hanging ferns from the local nursery. But they are wonderfully lush and last the whole season!

For fertilizer for my

For fertilizer for my staghorn ferns was giving the a banana about once every 2 weeks...skin and all

It must like the potassium! I

It must like the potassium! I came across these wonderful photos of staghorns. I'm not necessarily a big "Martha" fan but thought you'd really enjoy the information and photos:
http://www.themarthablog.com/2...

Fresh, sauteed fiddleheads

Fresh, sauteed fiddleheads are a wonderful spring treat- always special when you find them in the farmer's market.

TJ (like the name you chose),

TJ (like the name you chose), I picked up some fiddleheads from the market last year and served them as a side to some salmon and eggs. Wonderful! It does involve a bit of work to cook them properly, but it was fun to try.  The taste was in between asparagus, broccoli, and spinach. 

Well said “Go fishing when

Well said “Go fishing when the breeze is from the west, rather than from the north or the east. An optimal time is one hour before or after high or low tide or during”

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